Monday 15 November, 2021

3 Breakthroughs in Cancer Research during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Dudi Warsito, PhD in Oncology, is a medical writer and researcher at cancer.se.

It’s not news that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging and changing our world. Countries have closed down, people have (and are still) living in quarantine, industries have fallen to their knees, and face masks are more common than ever before. The corona pandemic has really put things in perspective .

For many of us, life was – and still is – difficult during the pandemic. But we have also managed to adapt to a new reality, helping and showing consideration for each other. And as more people get vaccinated, we see a light at the end of the tunnel. Dudi Warsito, PhD in Oncology and medical writer at cancer.se, is sharing more light – three major breakthroughs in cancer research during the pandemic.

What we’ll cover in this article:
– Is cancer research hanging in the balance?
– First targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer
– How the immune system protects cancer cells
– New vaccine against several cancer forms under development

Is cancer research is hanging in the balance?

The Covid-19 pandemic also led to the closure of several research laboratories around the world. In other areas, strict safety measures were implemented at labs, which has made the work more difficult to undertake. Many research projects have not been able to proceed as usual and research findings that were waiting to be discovered were put on hold. 

But not everything is lost. The pandemic has increased international cooperation, and despite shutdowns in several parts of the world, researchers have made several important discoveries that can improve the lives of everyone impacted by cancer. During the pandemic, the following three breakthroughs have been made in cancer research.

First targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer

With 2.26 million new cases per year, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world and every year, 685,000 people die due to breast cancer – only lung, bowel, liver and stomach cancers cause more deaths. Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer and is often combined with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy and medicines. The treatment you receive depends on the type of breast cancer you have and how invasive it is. Each type looks different, has different properties, and reacts differently to the same treatment.

Triple-negative breast cancer is one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer. It accounts for about 15% of all breast cancer cases and is very difficult to treat. Cytostatics are the primary treatment method, which can be very effective. But chemotherapy drugs cause troublesome side effects that can impair quality of life and mental health. A bigger problem, however, is that the cancer eventually develops resistance, which means that chemotherapy drugs lose their effect, making it more likely for the cancer to come back.

During the corona pandemic, Australian researchers discovered a substance that could kill breast cancer cells. The substance, called birinapant, had the greatest effect on triple-negative breast cancer.

A characteristic of cancer cells is that they can avoid apoptosis (cell death) and continue to grow and divide. In healthy cells, there is an interaction between two groups of proteins; a group that promotes cell death and a group that promotes survival. In cancer cells, this balance is shifted toward survival. The Australian researchers were able to show that birinapant blocked a specific protein that promotes cell survival in triple-negative breast cancer cells, which led to the death of the breast cancer cells.

Birnipant is now undergoing clinical trials and may be the first targeted therapy for triple-negative breast cancer. So far, the clinical studies have shown positive results and now the possibility of combining  birinapant with immunotherapy for an even better effect is now being investigated.

The advantage of targeted therapies is that they are a more specific treatment compared to chemotherapy drugs. Targeted drugs attack specific molecules, while chemotherapy drugs strike more widely. Because targeted drugs are specific, they also produce significantly milder side effects, which improves the quality of life of everyone impacted by cancer.

How the immune system protects cancer cells

The body’s immune system is there to protect us from intruders. It consists of different types of cells that attack bacteria, viruses, cells and particles that do not belong in the body. But did you know that the same cells that protect us from getting sick can also help cancer cells spread and form metastatic tumors) in other parts of the body?

It has long been known among researchers that the immune system can actually support cancer cells and worsen the condition of cancer patients. What the researchers want to know more about, however, is how this happens.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Italy took on this task with the aim of gaining a greater understanding of what the interaction between cancer cells and immune cells looks like. The researchers discovered that tumors can attract macrophages which, in turn, help the tumor grow and spread. Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that is part of the immune system. Their job is to swallow foreign substances such as cancer cells. However, they are easily influenced by their surroundings and can be manipulated by them.

Exactly this is what the researchers discovered that tumors could do. The researchers showed that tumors secrete the protein ERK5. ERK5 attracts macrophages to the tumor and changes their properties so that they protect the tumor instead of attacking it. These macrophages are called tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs). Once the cancer cells are protected, they can grow and divide undisturbed, and eventually begin to spread to other parts of the body and form metastatic tumors. When the researchers tried to block ERK5 from attracting TAM, they realized that the tumor could not grow as effectively and that the immune system could now more easily attack the tumor.

This discovery is a major breakthrough as it explains how cancer utilizes the immune system to its own advantage. Researchers believe that the study shows that ERK5 is a protein you should try to eliminate when developing new drugs for cancer. By giving cancer patients drugs that knock out ERK5, there are good chances of preventing the tumor from growing and making it less resistant to other cancer treatments.

New vaccine against several cancer forms under development

It’s common knowledge that vaccines are made to prevent infectious diseases such as influenza, polio, measles, tick-borne meningitis (TBE), and Covid-19 among many others. But there are also vaccines that treat diseases that have already broken out in the body.

At the University of Queensland in Australia, researchers have made a breakthrough with their attempts to develop a new vaccine candidate to treat several forms of aggressive cancer. The researchers hope that the new vaccine will be able to treat various blood cancers, breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and the aggressive brain tumor glioblastoma, among others.

The new vaccine candidate consists of antibodies that help the immune system recognize the protein WT1 (Wilms’ tumor protein 1). Several cancers have high levels of this protein, making it a natural target for new drugs. By helping the immune system recognize cancer cells with WT1, the antibodies can activate the immune system, which in turn attacks the cancer cells. The researchers plan to start clinical trials in the near future.

The advantage of this type of treatment is that the antibodies can be produced on a large scale relatively quickly and easily. You do not need to tailor the treatment to each individual patient, which takes longer and is a complex and costly process. The WT1 protein is such a common protein that the vaccine can treat a wider group.

Vaccines such as cancer treatment are included in the type of treatments called immunotherapy. The purpose of immunotherapy is to help one’s own immune system fight cancer. The immune system is usually good at fighting intruders in the body. Since cancer cells are intelligent cells, they can avoid and even manipulate the immune system to their own advantage. In the last decade, immunotherapy has become an increasingly common feature in the treatment of advanced cancer.

Dudi Warsito, PhD in Oncology, is a medical writer and researcher at cancer.se.

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